New Home for Ancient Art
Gregory M. Donley Magazine staff
Apollo Sauroktonos probably 350–275 bc. Attributed to Praxiteles (Greek, about 400–330 bc). Bronze with copper and stone inlay. Severance and Greta Millikin Purchase Fund 2004.30
The next section of the museum to open to the public, on June 27, is half the size of the main floor of the original 1916 building, and half the size of the gallery level of the new east wing. Yet, when it opens, the number of works of art on view in the entire museum will increase by about 60 percent in a single day. The math is simple: a Lee Krasner painting is a lot bigger than a Roman coin. So while about 485 works of art filled the east wing to capacity, the new galleries in the eastern half of the 1916 building’s level 1 provide ample space for more than 900 objects. What these works lack in size they more than make up for in potency.
Beginning with art from the area that gave rise to the oldest cities on earth—the region stretching from present-day Iraq north to the Black Sea—and following the growth of civilization and the evolution of art through ancient Egypt, classical Greece and Rome, and into the early Christian and medieval world and Africa, these galleries tell their stories with extraordinary eloquence. Cleveland’s collections of ancient art are not the largest among its peers—not by far. The likes of the British Museum in London, the Louvre in Paris, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston built enormous collections of antiquities thanks to avid 19th-century collectors whose Grand Tours often yielded literal boatloads of artifacts. The Cleveland Museum of Art opened just at the close of that era, and its holdings, in contrast, were built over decades, one object acquisition at a time, by astute curators and discerning directors. The character of the museum’s collection reflects that process: it presents a selection of masterworks rather than a voluminous survey of the ancient world.
How to Get a Wolf to Stay Mount maker Philip Brutz demonstrates the design of a custom-made mount and then installs the work in the gallery.
The new galleries are organized not as an unbroken chronology, but thematically, around the ideas that tie together groups of works. The scope of their contents is suggested by three striking masterworks installed in the lower lobby just outside the galleries, at the base of the stairs from the rotunda: the 3000 bc Stargazer from what today is the Turkish region of Anatolia, the bronze statue Apollo Sauroktonos, attributed to Praxiteles in Greece between 400 and 330 bc, and the large painted wood Crucifix with Scenes of the Passion, made in Pisa, Italy, in the early 13th century.
At the center of the new group of galleries is a large room titled The Gift of the River—home to the Egyptian collection that inspired the great 1992 exhibition Egypt’s Dazzling Sun: Amenhotep III and His World. Entering the galleries to the far left, visitors will first encounter a space Near Eastern Art: Asia Minor and the Fertile Crescent, where small, portable objects that exemplify the art of migratory societies, such as a gold Scythian plaque in the form of a stag, are juxtaposed against a wall-sized stone relief of a winged genie made in what is now Iraq.
The Guelph Treasure: Portable Altar and Crosses of Countess Gertrude c. 1045. Germany, Lower Saxony, Hildesheim. Gift of the John Huntington Art and Polytechnic Trust 1931.55 (left) 1931.461–2 (bottom and right)
From here the progression is from Greece to Rome by way of Etruscan and South Italian art that predated the arrival of Greek influence on the Italian peninsula. Early Christian and Byzantine art follows, and a circuit of the galleries around the perimeter culminates in a dramatic room devoted to the 11th-century Guelph Treasure and related works of medieval Europe. The museum’s collection of African art, most of it from much more recent years, is for the first time installed adjacent to the collection of Egyptian art, unifying these works produced on the African continent.
The installation has provided challenge and excitement not only to the curators who had to decide what to exhibit and emphasize. Displaying 900 mostly three-dimensional objects, for example, required fabricating well over 600 handmade custom mounts, each designed to hold its work of art in a way that is both extremely secure and unobtrusive enough to show off the work’s great qualities. The art handlers crew then had to install every single object, one at a time. The gallery and lighting designers made sure each room would bring out the best in the works on view there—sometimes incorporating arched doorways and other elements to evoke a particular setting, other times creating more neutral spaces.
Meanwhile, curators and educators worked together to develop a comprehensive interpretive system, including a special audio tour sponsored by the Womens Council, designed to help visitors understand and appreciate these works that span 5,000 years of art and culture. Preview the new galleries at the museum’s second annual Summer Solstice Party on June 19 and during special members days before the official public opening on June 27.
Cleveland Art, May/June 2010